The faith of Barry Gill, my Grade 5 teacher

Lucia Nardo

Primary School 1501 was a typical 1800s school. Its red brick façade faced Yarraville’s Francis Street, in the days before B-doubles rumbled by in unbroken procession, tempering the suburb’s gentrification. In 1966, I arrived as the nervous new girl in grade five. My chequered history of attending different schools (Williamstown Primary School for prep to grade two and St Augustine’s Girls School for grades three and four) had left me academically unsettled and struggling to make friends. The ones I made, I quickly lost on transfer.

Although my report cards (yes, my mother kept them all) indicated I was a good student, coming directly from 60s Catholic school curriculum doled out by dour Josephites, the fear of getting things wrong was so ingrained in me that, overwhelmed by anxiety, I had often run from my classroom. Now, shy and discouraged, I had to adjust to yet another new school. I wanted to be anywhere else but there.

The grade five room was on the second floor. With adult memory, it was small with three short rows of desk. Even though I sat towards the back, I still felt exposed. Anxiety overshadowed my academic performance. Maths overwhelmed me, I had no idea of history and science baffled me. One thing that held me together was my love of reading, which I’d been doing so my mother claimed, since the age of four. It was how I escaped everything wrong in my world.

My teacher, Mr Barry Gill, was the first male teacher I’d had. He was tall and fit, probably 21 years old, and to my young mind, as grown up as anyone could get. Mr Gill doubled as the school’s sports coach and, I discovered, was somewhat of a celebrity among the students as a player for the Carlton Football Club. Although he would go on to be part of 1968 and the legendary 1970 premiership teams, in those days remuneration for footballers wasn’t what it is today. Most players had routine day jobs and Barry Gill’s was teaching. It turned out to be a good thing for me.

He must have noticed my struggle because early into the school year, he summoned my mother to discuss my academic performance; at the rate I was going, I would not get through grade five. Despite my mother’s trepidation, it wasn’t a meeting to admonish or lay blame. It was a meeting to share his concerns and discover my interests. Mr Gill asked my mother if she would allow him to give me additional work and special projects. My mother, who valued academic success above all, readily agreed. So it began, extra reading and creative projects designed to patch the gaps in my knowledge, but mostly to boost my confidence.

In the nineteen-sixties, projects were done on ‘project paper’, hand written, with cut and paste pictures taken from magazines or hand drawn. Of all the additional work I undertook, one in particular sticks in my mind. It was a ‘newspaper’, complete with front-page headlines, feature articles, advertisements, crosswords and a sports page. I wrote all the articles and illustrated all the accompanying ‘photographs’. I wish I had kept it. Mr Gill must have been impressed. He showed it to the class, much to my embarrassment. However, with the flush of heat in my cheeks came something unexpected. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps I was more capable than I had let myself believe. I began to gain courage in the classroom. At the end of that year, I was dux of the class, the following year, dux of the school. Since then, I’ve revelled in any opportunity to learn, culminating in applying to undertake a PhD.

 

Lucia Nardo Grade 5 1966

Grade 5, Yarraville Primary School, 1966. Lucia Nardo circled

There are days when I wonder what would have happened to me had Barry Gill not taken an interest in my welfare. He saw beyond the struggling student to the struggling child. I’m sure he did the same for other students. Perhaps after a career of classrooms, he has no memory of particular students and no understanding of his effect on their lives. My younger-self gazes out from my grade five photograph, face screwed up in consternation. Mr Gill stands to the side of the class with arms folded, his posture confident of what he can do for his charges. On the back of the photograph, he’d written a simple message that didn’t hint at his role in my success: Congratulations on being Dux, 1966. Best wishes for the future. I’ve often been tempted to track him down, although I’m not sure what I’d say; maybe simply, “Thanks for believing in me”, poor words that don’t do justice to the extent of my gratitude.

Yarraville Primary School closed in the early nineteen-seventies and reincarnated into a still operational community centre. I pass the building regularly and each time, I think of my grade five teacher and his kindness. He taught me a valuable lesson: when we don’t have faith in ourselves, we need to borrow someone else’s.

Lucky for me, Barry Gill had a lot to lend.

 

 Lucia Nardo Barry Gill signature

The story was first published (as ‘A lesson in faith’) in the winter 2014 edition of the Victoria University magazine Platform. Lucia Nardo’s previous Almanac story was ‘Nine broken fingers’, about playing footy for Williamstown High in the 1970s.

 

Comments

  1. Correct my memory. Barry Glll played back pocket, half back flank? He appeared on a footy card one season;1972?. ‘m pretty sure he went to Williamstown after his time @ Carlton. Was he related to John Giill?

    Glen!

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic Lucia good on you for having the courage and honesty to write this piece and we’ll done , Barry Gill a good teacher is worth there weight in gold
    ( yes you should get in contact I am sure he would be rapt in your achievements )
    We’ll done Lucia !

  3. Neil Anderson says

    Fantastic story blending the football connection with the inspiring teacher. I’m always interested where people get that spark and realize they can achieve when it just doesn’t seem possible at the time.
    In my case it was a teacher at night-school who could see I was a keen student of modern history, particularly the World War 1 era. The poor bloke must have been very tolerant to have to stay back and listen to me firing more questions at him after everyone had left.
    Seeing me so enthusiastic and offering me extra reading from his own library led to me going on to university and majoring in history.
    Barry Gill was a back-pocket player and he he must have done well with his teaching because he ended up as Principal of Camperdown High School where my wife had tought and Almancker Luke Reynolds was a student.

  4. daniel flesch says

    @ Malcolm Ashwood … sorry mate , no offence meant ,but the long period of restraining myself from writing this to you has passed.; especially as this is a story about a teacher. I’m almost certain you would have been taught the difference between “there” and “their” , as in “their” weight in gold.

    And Lucia – lovely story. I think you’re right about teachers struggling to remember particular students. I got in contact with my year 12 Economics teacher to thank him for his beneficial influence 40 years ago . Luckily he had kept records and could refer to them to place me. It’s funny how kids think teachers are really old . Mine was all of 26 to our 17 years , which is why he’s still around so long after the event.

  5. John Gill is Barry’s older brother. He played about 60 games for Carlton including the 1962 Grand Final.

    I remember Barry at the Save the Tiger legends game at Windy Hill in 1990. He hadn’t aged a day since he stopped playing (one upside to going bald in your 20s – you get all your aging out of the way at once), and he found himself loose on the forwatd flank about 30 meters out. Obv this wasn’t just his first shot at goal since retirement, but one of the few since he was in the under 13s, and to say he exuded calm as he lined up would not be absolutely accurate. He took the Fevola/Saad 100 meter walk up, the concentration unwavering….and put it straight over goal umpire Rex Hunt’s hat. Amazing himself as much as anyone in the crowd.

    A great clubman and a fine footballer.

  6. Great story Lucia. Thanks for sharing it on the Almanac.

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Lucia. As Neil said, Barry ended up as principal of Camperdown High School while I was there. I remember one day our PE teacher was absent so Mr Gill stepped in to take the class. It was pouring rain so he ended up taking us to the video room where we watched a half of the 1970 Grand Final. Sadly for me, as a pies fan, it was the second half.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Gee I love this story Lucia.

    Famous sporting schoolteachers – there must have been a few of those.

  9. Thanks for the kind feedback all. Nice to know that the story touched a chord.

  10. A great story, Lucia. Thanks!

    I met Barry Gill in the rooms at the Williamstown Football Club on the night of their 1986 premiership. My uncle (a Carlton supporter) introduced me to him. He had driven up from Camperdown with his wife to partake in the celebrations. He was extremely polite and patient, a thorough gentleman.

  11. Wonderful story Lucia. So poignantly and honestly told. Made me go all misty on the train this morning.
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. A great read.

    There’s always so much chatter amongst parents about teachers and whether or not they are ‘good teachers’. We all want a good teacher for our kids. But my view is that if every child has just one ‘good teacher’ during their schooling years then that is great. ‘Good teachers’ are the ones that can make a personal connection and really inspire and give confidence as you’ve described here.

    Cheers

  13. Dr Goatboat says

    I always confused him with Tommy Alvin…ornaments all

  14. Melinda Toye says

    Lucia, what a beautiful piece! I struggled to read it through the tears. I can’t tell you how proud I was to read this about my dad! I know every girl thinks their dad is the best in the world but to read that he had such a positive impact on you was heart warming. Dad was at my place tonight and he was bursting with pride, your words have had profound effect on him. The whole family are very grateful that you took the time to write this, made us appreciate him even more! After retiring from teaching, Mum and dad were in Melbourne for 10 years but recently moved to Ballarat to be closer to family (grand kids adore their poppy). Dad said he will be in touch with you. Again thank you

  15. A resonating piece for many of us. Many stories to be told about that one teacher. Another theme to explore a la The Wool Industry?

  16. Absolutely superb. The purist of motives, the richest of stories, warmly told. Thank you for publishing the story in these pages Lucia. It is an Almanac Classic.

    [And Barry is clearly a fine fellow – as my father would have said]

  17. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Sensational Melinda , this article seems to have given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people fantastic !

  18. Warwick Nolan says

    Great story Lucia. Thank you.
    I think he enjoyed quite an influential career at Casterton also.

    If I had one question for Barry Gill . . .

    It would be about a goal he kicked at Moorabbin just before half time. It seems the siren failed and timekeeper Fred Farrell was clanging the emergency backup “cow” bell to get the the umpire’s attention. Of course, that wasn’t achieved, Barry’s goal stands and the Blues go on to win by 5 points.

  19. Michael Sexton says

    For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps I was more capable than I had let myself believe

    Could there be any more significant a gift for a child than that?

  20. I remember Barry as an outstanding footballer, an opponent, a good bloke, and dependable, reliable etc etc.. Obviously an outstanding person as well. Obviously one of the feel good footy stores which gets lost in so much of the populism media.

  21. Barry Gill says

    Thanks Lucia,
    It gives me enormous satisfaction to know that I was able to assist you in those formative years of your education. I have fond memories of my first appointment as a teacher to Yarraville Primary School. There were many very capable students in that class and I often wonder what has happened to them.
    When I look at the class photo in your article I can recall many names of my students.
    As a teacher there is nothing more rewarding than to know that your students have benefitted from your work and have achieved their goals as you have.

    Congratulations on being Dux in 1966.
    Best Wishes for the Future.

    Barry G Gill

  22. Barb smith says

    I love the Footy Almanac! Not only are we entertained by other people’s footy passions, but, just when we need it, we learn of real life drama and fulfilment through beautiful stories like Lucia’s.
    And we really need that now.
    Good on you Almanack!

  23. Thanks all for your comments and a special thank you to Mr Gill – and to me you will always be MR Gill – for your acknowledgement here. I have carried my gratitude into every academic experience and I’m delighted that I’ve found a way to make you aware of what being in your class meant to me.

  24. Lucia, I also attended Yarraville primary school . Barry Gill was my grade 3 teacher. I have been a one eyed carlton supporter since grade 3. Prior to that i didnt follow footy. Yes he was a good teacher. I really dont think there was a pupil that didnt like him. Mr Scarlett? barracked for essendon. Carlton and essendon were 2 of the great teams in the sixties. There was a friendly banter going on between them over the matches every week

  25. Lucy, It was wonderful reading your piece on Barry Gill. I too was in grade 5 with you and have fond memories of Mr Gill. I became a Carlton supporter because of zMr. Gill He was a great teacher and Lucy I remember you were a great achiever and friend. One again a lovely piece.

  26. John Chapple says

    Lucy,
    You have brought back some wonderful memories with your words and the photo that you posted. I was also in Mr Gill’s 5th grade class, what a great teacher. I all too briefly caught up with Mr Gill in Sydney a couple of years after finishing at Yarraville . Carlton came to the SCG (69 or 70 I think) to play a game maybe against Geelong. My family had moved to Sydney after I had completed year 6. I went to the game with the family with the hope of saying gidday and to watch the footy. At games end I was able to jump the fence and high tail it across the ground to catch up with him before he disappeared up the player’s race. Probably wondered who the lad was that had accosted him. Do that today and you would be arrested, my how times have changed. Great memories, thank you Lucy.

  27. Wow! I gad Mr Gill in grade 6 at Colac West. Best teacher ever. So glad he struck a chord with you too.

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